Travel to Tucson, Arizona in the southern part of the state, and you will see the landscape change dramatically. Lush vegetation and green grass fade to beautiful backdrops of mountains and the rise of the mighty Saguaro cactus. Here you will find the Saguaro National Park, a park that is split into two districts; one east of the city of Tucson and one west of the city. The park protects some of the finest scenery and examples of the Sonoran Desert and of course, the Saguaro cactus.
Saguaro National Park, Warm Winters, Hot Summers
If you’re planning a visit to Saguaro National Park, keep in mind that the weather is very different than in the rest of the United States. The summers here are full of snow-birds, people who flock to the south for the winter months to enjoy the sunshine and warmer temperatures. Wintertime is a popular time to visit the park, and the temperatures range from the 50’s to the 70s. Summer temperatures can range from the 80 s into the 100s, so exercise caution and drink plenty of water if you are visiting during the summer months. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are common visitor ailments and can even be fatal.
The Visitor Centers
Since the park has two separate districts, there are two separate visitor centers, one in each district. The Red Hills Visitor Center is located in the west district. It has great mountain views, exhibits of the Sonoran Desert and a bookstore. The visitor center located in the east district is smaller of the two centers but is also very interesting. Their plaques to identify the native plants right out front and there are guided ranger programs to choose from as well as a bookstore to shop at. The visitor centers are great starting points to see what trails are in the area, where to camp, where to stay and other things to do and see.
Hike Among the Saguaros
The park has nice hiking trails to see the sights, flora, and fauna and hopefully some wildlife. The Mica View Loop is 2 miles round trip and is relatively flat and easy. The Loma Verde Loop is almost a 4 miles round trip with a slight elevation gain. Here you can walk through mesquite trees and climb up a bluff. The Deer Valley Loop is also about 4 miles round trip and has a 200-foot elevation change. This trail will lead through washes and by many scattered saguaros. The Garwood Loop is a little over 5.5 miles round trip and has a 730-foot elevation change. Cross through a cactus forest, past a historic ranch and into the foothills of the beautiful Rincon Mountains. The Rincon Valley Area has two trails that are currently open. The first is the Hope Camp Trail that is almost 6 miles round trip. It offers some of the best views of the Tanque Verde Ridge and Rincon Peak. Second, is the Ridge View Trail which is a little less than 2 miles. It climbs up to a scenic turnaround area where you can see canyons and the Rincon Valley. Hiking provides excellent opportunities for some exercise and to look at the saguaros and the park.
Hiking on the trails is safer and more convenient, but for those that would like to branch out and explore areas that don’t have designated trails, there is wilderness hiking. Saguaro National Park has a stunning wilderness area. Hikes through the area can take you from under 3,000 feet in elevation to over 8,000 feet in several miles. Thousands of acres are available for exploration within the park.
Petroglyphs within the Park
Petroglyphs are considered ancient drawings or carvings left by historic people of the region or area. In Saguaro, petroglyphs can be seen and were left by the prehistoric Hohokam people. Walk the Signal Hill Trail to a hill where many 800-year-old petroglyphs can be seen. The park encourages photographs but please don’t touch to help preserve them for future generations.
On the east district, you can find the scenic drive known as the Cactus Forest Drive. The road is a paved loop, traveling approximately 8 miles in length. The drive allows visitors to see the sights at a leisurely pace. The drive offers views of the mountains, cactus, and the Sonoran Desert. There are scenic overlooks and pullouts to stop and take pictures. A few trailheads can be found as well if you want to explore further by hiking. The popular Bajada Loop Drive is not paved and covers a 6mile loop. There are picnic areas, pullouts and hiking trailheads along the drive for visitor’s enjoyment.
Guided Programs in the Park
Every national park has guided programs to listen to and participate in. The programs change based on seasons, staff and other availability issues. See theater presentations on different kinds of cactus, the monsoon rains, Sonoran Desert Bingo, lizards, kangaroo rats and many other interesting and fascinating topics.
Camping in Saguaro National Park
Camping is allowed in this national park and the warm winter months are the best time to do so. There are six designated campgrounds in the park in the wilderness area. These campsites cannot be reached by vehicle and must be hiked to. Bring lots of water, as the temperatures stay on the warmer side most of the year and the desert heat and atmosphere can spike thirst. Campers should use the “leave no trace” rule, where anything they pack in they must pack out to keep the park and wilderness clean and preserved to last for future generations.
Saguaro National Park, A Desert Beauty
Saguaro National Park offers desert scenery as you’ve never seen before. The Sonoran Desert is known for its large cacti, trees, and green vegetation, especially during the winter months. The Rincon Mountains are an impressive backdrop to the desert scenery and offer views from a hike up the mountains. Bicycling, hiking and horseback riding are all allowed in the park. The visitor centers can offer talks, short theater presentations, gifts, maps, advice and information and much more for your stay. The city of Tucson is a fun and pleasant place to visit, and during the winter months, a host of activities are held to enjoy the outdoors. If you’re feeling adventurous hike off the beaten path into the Saguaro wilderness and stay a night or two at one of the campsites. Spring months provide a chance to see the amazing wildflowers bloom and many people visit just for this reason.